Spiritual Lessons from the Biological World

Spiritual life reflects biology in so many ways.  That seems an odd thought on the surface, but it is very real.  As in physical life where we are born, we grow, we die, so can we do each of these spiritually.  These are obvious points of comparison.  But on the larger scale, there are other apt comparisons to be made.   As a biologist trained in botany and ecology, with interests in environmental health, I see so many things that blend the two realms of human experience in the most remarkable ways.  To demonstrate this concept, consider the application of the following biological principles to the realm of faith: Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, Blackman’s Law of Limiting Factors, the dangers of monoculture, the effects of moderate disturbance on diversity, and reciprocal altruism and cooperation theory.  Each of them addresses specific aspects of life, and each can actually be applied to the life of the spirit, as well.

Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.  Some of the most fundamental principles of ecology involve the basic laws of survival.  According to 19th century German organic chemist, Justus Liebig, the nutrient (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, etc.) in least supply limits the success of a plant.  At the population level, this can be expanded to say that the growth and success of a population is limited by the resource (water, nutrients, food, space, etc.) in least supply.  For example, plants grow poorly in nitrogen depleted soils.  We add fertilizer to amend the problem, and our crops increase.  Sometimes, there may be enough nitrogen available, but another factor limits the plant’s growth.  Molybdenum is an element that is not extremely abundant in soils, but there is usually enough to supply plants with their needs.  Why do they need it?  It serves as a co-factor for the functioning of an enzyme that starts the process of taking nitrogen from the soil and converting it into a form that the plant can use.  Without molybdenum, nitrogen could not be assimilated by the plant, and therefore the plant would appear to have a nitrogen deficiency.

Spiritually, we have needs.  Some of these are easily understood, and the resources are always quite abundant.  For example, we need the water of life, which is always flowing and always free.  We need God’s light to bring us energy and light our paths to navigate the difficulties we face in life.  These are never in short supply.  However, there are some things that we may have more control over.  These may be unavailable not because they are not there, but because they become unavailable due to human intervention.  Among these, we need to be supplied with enough of the right food to feed our souls.

One of the most direct expression of this concept is from the prophet, Hosea, who recorded in chapter 4, verse 6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”

In Hebrews 5.12-14, Paul further applies this principle.  “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”  Here, the missing resource is solid food, information on how to live and how to deal with problems, not coast along with the basic principles.  No baby that consumes only milk from birth on will grow and thrive.  We need the challenge of deeper teachings, broader applications.  A congregation that is fed only “first principle” sermons will never achieve any spiritual growth.  Yes, the first principles are important. But they are not the only thing.

Blackman’s Law of Limiting Factors.   Think of this law as the converse of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.  Simply stated, “Too much of a good thing can be bad.”  To illustrate, plants need water.  But water-logged soils lead to distress for plants that needs air spaces in the soil.  The roots become starved for oxygen, become anoxic, and then die.  Animal life needs water for survival, to carry nutrients, transport and eliminate wastes, and for cooling.  But if a human consumes too much water, she may die.  Any farmer knows the danger of adding too much fertilizer and “burning” the crop.  Physiologists would refer to these as examples of toxicity.

Spiritually, we may see toxicity in the form of preaching and teaching that continually harps on a single issue.  When preachers develop “hobbies” related to a specific topic, the teaching is not balanced, and the people suffer.  Teaching or preaching that is too deep or focuses on esoteric bits of denominational doctrinal minutiae that most people will never encounter in a lifetime often results in glassy stares from many, and self-congratulation from others because “we got it right.”  Teaching that focuses only on getting people “into” the church is also in a sense “toxic.”  Why?  Because after they are “in,” we forget about their needs, and we leave them to fend for themselves.  They begin to wither and die (See Liebig’s Law.)  Real people need real help to deal with real problems.  How do we deal with relationships?  How do we deal with loss, stress, oppression, repression, temptation, addiction, obsession, greed, loneliness, inertia….the list of real human concerns goes on and on.

One of the worst scenarios involving the toxicity of excess deals with fear.  A faith built on fear is not a real faith.  John as much as says so in I John 4.18-19.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”  Our faith is expressed not merely with words, but with deeds and with love.  A faith that is built solely on fear of hell, fear of God, fear of disappointing family, friends, spouse—this is not faith at all.  It is little more than a weak attempt at keeping peace, perhaps seasoned with a little self-preserving “fire insurance.”  But “fear faith” is frequently encountered where sermons and teaching are constantly tainted with brimstone and threats.  I once asked a fire and brimstone preacher why he spent so much time on hell, and he told me I only heard what I wanted to hear, that Hell is mentioned more in the Bible than Heaven.  That may be true if you tend to preach from a concordance.  But quality is more important than quantity.  How is heaven spoken of?  And does “hell” refer to the place of the damned in all instances, or was it mistranslated?  Concordances are only useful lists of words that may help you locate some truth, but are not in and of themselves the truths to which they refer.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on why people have left the churches of Christ.  I can totally sympathize with many of their issues.  I read one letter that in some respects could have been close to my own story.  I feel deeply sorry for these people.  They turned away from God because of the damage inflicted on them by well-meaning but misinformed, ignorant people.  Young people who reach the non-scripturally described “age of accountability” are often hounded relentlessly to be baptized.  It doesn’t matter that they may not understand everything they feel they need to, and some things just may not make sense to them.  The peace of a relationship with God, of knowing his Son, is distorted and twisted into a source of pain and contention.  Get them dunked and move on.  That kind of emotional pressure and psychological coercion (maybe even bordering on abuse) almost always backfires.  Unless a person obeys with understanding and of free-will, the obedience is suspect of insincerity.  Many of these people fall away as soon as they leave home, or worse, they stay in the church, miserable, afraid, inactive and dead inside.

The danger of monoculture.  During the middle to late 20th century, there was a movement called the Green Revolution.  Its goal was to find improved crops that would provide high yields with short growing seasons so that starving people in the third world could be fed efficiently with nutritious foods.  However, when these new, highly selected crops were planted, they were susceptible to various diseases and pests, and what may have been a nuisance where many different crops are planted became a plague that led to massive failure.  Central America produces much of the bananas we buy in stores.  In order to make them seedless, breeders have hybridized different wild bananas to produce triploid lines that are sterile.  This means that many banana trees are genetically identical, propagated from cuttings.  Not long ago, banana plantations were threatened when the sterile, seedless commercial bananas were faced with a disease that could have wiped out entire farms because all of the trees were genetically the same, and therefore all susceptible to the disease.

In religion, if we require everyone to march in lock-step on every point of disputed practice, we are in danger of a crop failure.  There are essential doctrines that we must accept, and if we are truly seeking a real faith, we will accept gladly.  But so much emphasis is placed on complete unanimity on ALL issues that we lose sight of that real faith, and of things that Jesus called the weightier matters of law—justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23.23).

Spiritual monoculture typically leads to the development of a priestly caste (usually populated by preachers) that by self-proclamation become the God-approved Guardians of Orthodoxy.  The cruel, un-Christian manner of their disingenuous interactions (read, “attacks”) are so far removed from the civil dialogue of men of truly good will.  They brook no variance or challenge to the accepted catalog of doctrines, including the interpreted and interpolated laws and commands that have been scrupulously sought out, uncovered, and pieced together for all the world to behold or be damned.  Anyone who dares to assert a different interpretation to anything is immediately branded a heretic and shunned.  Preachers often issue the challenge, “Show me where I’m wrong by the scriptures and I’ll be happy to change.  You’ll be my friend if you do.”  I have never seen either one happen, because the audience knows that the preacher is right, because he has arrogantly displayed his superior command of scripture for all to see.  But the ability to parrot the party line with a straight face does not mean that the preacher is right.  And anyone who has the audacity to question the orthodoxy may have enough self-respect to avoid the abuse that will certainly be heaped upon them for their “lack of faith” and for accepting “false teaching.”

The most beautiful gardens are ones where flowers of different colors and heights are planted.  Indeed few sights can match a mountain meadow in spring or a desert after a rain, where flowers of so many different colors form an awe-inspiring patchwork.  All of these flowers are nourished by the same soil, take in the same rain, grow under the same sun, and yet are different in bloom and expression.  We are all different in our understanding, but united in a common faith.  If we could embrace that instead of press for lock-step submission to man-made traditions, we would begin to see an overflow of joy.  People would want to come together to worship, not be there out of threats and fear.  Faith and the practice of religion should be liberating, not encumbering.

The effect of moderate disturbance on diversity.  Closely associated with the danger of monoculture is the effect that moderate disturbance has on diversity.  In ecology, biodiversity is very important.  Diversity brings stability to communities and ecosystems by ensuring that there are redundant species that can fill in gaps should other species become diminished or extinct.  In plant communities, productivity is actually enhanced with the presence of more species, at least up to a point.  Some species may make resources more available to others, thereby facilitating their colonization and presence.  Too many species in a given community, however, may be counterproductive since the effects of competition will be much more pronounced.

Some disturbance actually results in a benefit to the level of biodiversity.  For example, consider a field where there is no grazing by any species.  One or a few very hardy, highly competitive species tend to dominate the community, and prevent other species from becoming established.  Where the level of disturbance is extreme, for example a large herd of sheep crowded into a small pasture, only a few species will be able to tolerate such conditions.  However, a moderate level of grazing or disturbance actually leads to more biodiversity because the competitive advantage of the few species that dominate at low disturbance is removed, allowing more species to invade.  The species capable of dealing with extreme disturbance may be present, but other species will thrive here as well.

Spiritually, a congregation with no “disturbance” becomes complacent and dominated by a few strong personalities.  Without any intellectual or spiritual challenge, views are synchronized, and diversity of views and ideas become low, if not a monoculture.  Congregations where leaders are constantly whipping the members into a frenzy over this sensational notion, that rising heresy, or some other (usually conservative) social or even political position also tend to have little diversity.  The people who stay are the ones who agree.  Anyone who doesn’t may tend to look for some other place where they can feel more welcome and accepted.  Of course, anyone who leaves this kind of toxic environment will face the wrath of the faithful, and may feel compelled to stay put if only to keep the peace.  But is it worth it to be unappreciated, disrespected, and under constant suspicion for not toeing the line?

The moderate disturbance of genuinely encouraging questions, open discussion, study, and the sharing of ideas brings far more to a spiritual community in terms of diversity.  It fosters more genuine investigation, more respect, and more depth of real faith as opposed to the veneer of faith that many unfortunately opt for when religion is imposed on them.  A friend of mine used to be fond of saying that if we are set on worshipping with a church that agrees with us on everything, we’ll be in a congregation of one.  A congregation that values genuine questioning and seeking of truth is to be applauded and appreciated.  Many may make that claim, but they are just as likely to do so with the expectation that all investigations will lead to the singular “truth” of their approved doctrine.  I know for a fact from my own experience that my conclusions on a number of issues are distinctly at odds with the majority of members of the wing of the church to which I belong.  I have suggested that we may be wrong, but that gets nowhere, because the doctrines and practices we cherish, arrived at using our Heaven’s-Seal-of-Approval stamped CENI hermeneutic are inerrant and infallible.  In essence, while we refute the infallibility of papal pronouncements when made ex cathedra, we accept as infallible the conclusions of “Bro. Black” or “Bro. White” who published in the “right” brotherhood paper using CENI as the infallible guide.  But if our wing and the other guys use the same method and arrive at different conclusions, something is wrong.  If the method is infallible and not to be questioned, then logically, it should lead to identical conclusions, no matter who examines the identical evidence or when.

Reciprocal altruism and cooperation theory.  Animal behaviorists and psychologists have studied why organisms, including humans, should cooperate.  At the most basic level, competition is actually harmful to the competitors.  The energy and resources an organism puts into competition could be better spent on maintenance and reproduction.  On the one hand, shouldn’t we just look out for ourselves, for our own self-interests?  Many people might think so, and in a single case interaction, it may be true: we may win big if we force the other guy to be a big loser.  But if we are frequently engaged with specific individuals, it is to our benefit to cooperate.  Why?  Because if we do, we “win” more in the long term.  If I don’t cooperate in this round of interactions, you won’t cooperate in the next one.  I may win more now, but lose more then.  We both come out ahead if we work together.

Isn’t that what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount?  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7.12)  This principle is so fundamental to civil and enjoyable human interaction that we teach it to the youngest children.  We need to refresh ourselves on it frequently.  I mean, if I disagree with you over some peripheral issue, should I attack and belittle you?  Hmmm.  Do I want to be attacked and belittled?  The obvious answer is,”No.” However, the watchdog Guardians of Orthodoxy don’t care.  They are so arrogantly secure in their doctrinally pure ivory towers that they attack, berate, belittle, and brand as false teachers anyone who disagrees with them or accepts anything outside the unwritten creed.  (Yes, we claim to have no creed, but it is there, as real as any written one.  To question or challenge these ethereal premises is to deny the faith.)  In fact, if you defend yourself against them, they accuse you of attack, and glory in the fact that they are being persecuted for righteousness’s sake.  Their self-righteousness and arrogance are practically palpable, even though they use words like love and humility.  But that brand of in-your-face Christianity is driving people away in droves.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I have been so sensitive to much of this.

As a Christian who is a scientist and a teacher, I enjoy exploring the overlap of principles between the physical world and the spiritual.  I am thrilled when I see the concepts in God’s written revelation supported by his unwritten one.  As a scientist, I am trained to attempt to falsify and disprove hypotheses.  After we perform experiments and observations to try and disprove a hypothesis, if we have not been successful in disproving it, we accept that hypothesis as valid and move on to another investigation.  If the experiment shows a flaw in the hypothesis, if the data do not support it, we reject that hypothesis and search for one that more adequately explains the phenomenon in question.  Science never stops.  Questions lead to more questions, even as answers lead to more answers.  In religion, however, we are all too often content to accept what we have been taught without question or examination.  We are bent not on seeking the weakness of our doctrines in order to find and understand truth, but on using cherry-picked “proof-texts” to prop up and support what are often no more than traditions.  We reject any questions or attempts to view our conclusions from different perspectives to see if they truly remain valid and objective.  If we do raise a question, one of the first things some preachers sprint to is that we must “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Tim 3.23)  They fail to read on or recite the next portion, which continues, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.”  (2 Timothy 3.24-25a)  Many of those who teach are the most quarrelsome.  Here, real science is far superior in practice, and far less subjective.  (Incidentally, there are probably fewer fights in laboratories than in church buildings.)

Life is beautiful, whether biological or spiritual.  Each realm mirrors the other.  Our greater experience is with the physical and biological, what we can see and feel; we touch the spiritual realm through the intellect and the heart.  In viewing the similarities between biology and spirituality, we should gain greater insight into spirituality.  We need to strengthen our connections with the principles of physical life so that we can understand our spiritual existence better.  Understanding engenders appreciation.  The more we know, the richer our lives may become.  We need enough of the right kinds of resources, not too much and not too little.  We need to be encouraged to think and examine and explore.  We need to understand and appreciate people of different views who share a common faith.  Without these things, our souls will wither in bitterness and isolation.  With respect and love, we can be stronger and win.  Win what? Better life. More life.  Eternal life.  It’s worth the investment in time and effort and reflection and practice.  And besides, I never like to lose.

The Lord Giveth, But Lowly Man Taketh Away

I am not a patient man, although I wish it were not so.  I see things like injustice and inflexibility and I want them to change, not some day – now.  I hate suffering.  I hate oppression.  I hate ignorance and the willful perpetuation of misunderstanding.  On the one hand, these realizations spur me on to action.  I look for ways to make things better.  But I run into the possibility of relying too much on my own devices. That is something of a danger, because then I am more likely to claim credit where I don’t deserve it, or more likely still, I will make stupid mistakes.  Knowing my limitations, I redouble my efforts to stay on track.

I enjoy a challenge.  I would like to think that I am not so set in my ways that I am unwilling to explore any concept from different angles and views.  I want to know that what I believe I believe because I truly believe it, not because someone told me that I have to.  This, I believe is the spirit of the noble Bereans in Acts 17, who searched their scriptures to determine if what Paul taught them was indeed true.  We must be willing to do this if we are to avoid being led into a faith more founded on tradition and interpretation than truth.

But this invariably leads to conflict because not everyone is willing to think.  Oh, they may say they are, but when the chips are down, many seek only to reinforce their pre-existing dogmas, and are quite unwilling to do anything to rock the boat.  But therein lies the problem: if we are content to sit quietly on a mirror-still sea, we are not moving, either forward or back.  There are only two ways to get anywhere: the winds will blow us one way or the other, or we will have to row.  Chances are, we will eventually, even periodically, be affected one way or the other by the wind, and then we may have to make corrections, never losing sight of our lode star or the goal we set just at the edge of the horizon.

In matters of religion, change is never easy.  We may view change as patently wrong because it violates our cherished orthodoxy, or we are just too comfortable with the status quo to consider any alternative.  I am not in any way suggesting change for the sake of change, or change because we think it is a good idea.  I am talking about change that places us in closer alignment with God’s own will.

There are so many things in religion that we do, not because we have specific authority to do them, but because of tradition.  As churches evolve, as a movement speciates from its ancestral sect or denomination, it naturally distinguishes itself with some sort of novel or perhaps reconstituted practice or doctrine.  If there is no difference, why break away in the first place?  Thus, some changes are implemented while there are many things that are essentially left intact from its predecessors. Within the Stone-Campbell Movement, the prevailing hermeneutic has been to establish religious authority by direct command, apostolically approved example, and inferring commands from examples, or allowing expedients that provide support for the works we are commanded to do, or that have been exemplified.  This was not new with the SCM, but was passed down from elements of Presbyterianism and is evident in some form in different Protestant groups.  There is much good that can be gleaned from this sort of practice.  On one level, it encourages study, which is always good.  But when we draw conclusions that are not necessary from the data, we actually commit error.  In logic or statistics, this is called a Type I error, or a false positive, which suggests to us that a relationship or correlation exists that actually does not.  When we place the method of interpretation on such a level that it is viewed as actually being of divine origin, we have essentially edited the scriptures by adding something that is not there.  Jesus may have interpreted scriptures for his audience, and he may have inferred conclusions, which are both logical assumptions.  However, he never gave commands as to how to interpret scripture.  No apostle ever enumerated the three methods of establishing authority.  Search as you might, they’re not there.  Oh, keeping commandments is certainly mentioned, as is following examples.  But one thing to remember here is that when Paul told his readers to imitate him, he directed them to imitate him as he imitated Christ, which is the gist of his directive in both I Corinthians 4 and I Corinthians 11.

There have been many changes of varying degree that have been made over the centuries by accident or by direct choice.  Indeed, the catalog of evolving practices is a work in progress.  We typically think of any such change as being an addition to scripture.  But what if we have actually accepted a practice that has taken away from the original intent?  Are we willing to restore what has been lost?  This is a genuine test of the purported fidelity to an original form.

What can we possibly have lost from the original intent of the structure of the church?  Perhaps one of the most glaring issues I have found is the elimination of the recognition of women who are designated specifically as servants or deacons (diakonon) of the church, as Phoebe was in Romans 16.  The same word is used in I Timothy 3, where the listing of the qualifications of deacons is interrupted by a clause that describes the characteristics or qualifications of women who would be designated to serve.  How we translate the Greek word gunaikas, here, makes a tremendous difference: the Greek word may mean either wives or women.  The tradition of translation has been to render this as “their wives,” referring to the spouses of the male candidates for the office of deacon.  However, there is no possessive pronoun modifying the Greek word to indicate that this distinctly refers to the deacons’ wives.  And, as it has been pointed out over and over by anyone who has honestly and carefully studied the passage, there is no parallel discussion of requirements for bishops’ wives.  The simplest solution to this issue–which according to the logical dictum of Occam’s Razor is usually the best— is that this extended the general qualifications of servants to women as well as men.

But what would these women have been responsible for?  Ample evidence from the early church writers after the apostolic period supports the work of a woman as deacon in terms of serving women who may be ill, serving the communion to home-bound women, assisting with the baptism of women, caring for orphan children and serving those who were in prison.  According to some writers from the middle ages, the office of the female deacon was abandoned because some were apparently over-extending their circle of power and influence (not unlike male bishops and preachers), and because of issues such as women being of “inferior intelligence” and “weaker” than men, and of course, their “impurity” associated with the natural progress of female physiology.  This rather misogynistic view apparently coincided with the decline of the necessity for women to attend adult female candidates for baptism, since the emphasis had shifted from adult believer baptism to infant baptism.  So, the adoption of the extra-scriptural doctrine of inherited sin “necessitating” the well-meaning (but not scripturally supported) institution of infant baptism may have contributed to the abolition of a divinely appointed, apostolically instituted office.  In essence, two wrongs made a third wrong, not a right.

What worries me about this sort of an issue is that we have accepted this legacy of error, born of erroneous doctrine and the prejudicial translation of early texts to support the status quo inherited from the androcentric hierarchy of medieval Catholicism.  The straw man argument will be made today that if we accept that women may serve as officially appointed deacons, then they will soon be allowed to serve as elders, then preachers, and on and on.  It’s that old “slippery slope” all over.  (I’d actually love to see this slippery slope that some are always worried about.  It sounds about as wide and steep as the wall of the Grand Canyon.)  If we are truly dedicated to maintaining fidelity to the early church constitution, however, we will not go beyond what is evident.  However, we will carefully and prayerfully appoint women to take on these grave responsibilities.  By not recognizing the role of women as designated servants with specific responsibilities, we are equally in error.

As I ponder these sorts of issues, I know that some will immediately and without a moment’s consideration take exception, because as of the mid-20th century, we have achieved perfection in our reconstruction of the primitive church.  And while I may be the target of the accusation that I am trying to add to scripture, I am not in any way advocating anything of the sort.  I would like to see us embrace an essential and valuable dimension of our spiritual heritage.  I would just like to see us “…hold true to what we have attained.” (Phil 3.16)  But we cannot hold true to what we have not striven to attain.  Don’t take my word for anything I have written here.  Seek out the truth.  Consult the early manuscripts.  Consider the early histories.  An excellent synopsis of the early history of the role of women as deacons can be accessed at https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2008/07/the-ministry-of-the-deaconess-through-history.html.  Bobby Valentine, who I find to be a very conscientious and accessible scholar, has an excellent article quoting from the published views of many of the formative leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement regarding the role of women as deacons.  It was interesting to see that so many of the most influential men in our history—men like Alexander Campbell, Moses Lard, J.W. McGarvey, Walter Scott, Tolbert Fanning and C.R. Nichol – essentially assumed that women would be selected to serve, not because of a human desire for it, but because it is so plainly evident from scripture. His article can be accessed at http://stoned-campbelldisciple.blogspot.com/2011/09/voices-on-female-deacons-in-stoned.html.  Valentine points out that the only person specifically identified as a deacon in the New Testament is Phoebe in Romans 16.  The significance of that cannot be underestimated. (The “Seven,” including Stephen and Philip, selected to “serve” in Acts 6 are not specifically called “deacons.”)

When I find myself becoming anxious over our self-satisfied inertia, leaving us sitting motionless on that glassy sea, I need to remember the words of  I Peter 5,  “6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  So, there.  It is God’s to deal with.  But if we can be the instruments through which his will may be done, are we not obligated to act?  Ultimately, God will judge.  He reminds us through the heart of the poet to “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46.10)  Yet sometimes, being still is hard.  Especially if you are an impatient man who wants to see justice and liberty bringing the freedom for all to serve God to their fullest capacity as God ordained, nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

A Time to Gather Stones Together

I have been rather fascinated over the years by history.  I am by no means a historian, but I firmly believe that George Santayana was correct, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  This is true on many different levels.  The grander the scale, the greater the temporal consequences.  However, there are other scales of history that are more difficult to analyze, perhaps due to the limitation of the records that are available or because those records that do exist are so subjective in nature.  A case in point is that of church history.  At the broadest scale, church history is probably quite objective.  At the level of understanding the origins, histories, and interactions of specific church traditions, those histories become increasingly tinged with subjective interpretation, as those who are interested in the history are almost invariably a part of the group.  One group with a recent and distinctly American history is the Stone-Campbell movement, made up of the Christian Churches (both Independent and Disciples of Christ), and the Churches of Christ.  Within the lineage of the churches of Christ, there is an expanding plethora of views, practices, and splinter groups that turn the Campbells’ original plea for Christian unity into a hollow appeal at best, and what many may consider to be a wholly rejected premise.

I have become quite interested in the history of the Churches of Christ.  I claim no great knowledge of that history outside of the reading I have done.  But it is hard to be a part of a group without gaining at least some passing knowledge of major points of its history and having heard of some of the formative leaders of the specific group(s).  Having grown up the son of a preacher in the non-institutional (NI) churches of Christ, I grew up hearing code words like “sound,” “conservative”, “liberal”, and “the issues”.  I had little knowledge of what these things were.  I was taught that anyone who was not in perfect agreement over “the issues” was wrong.  I often wondered about the exceptions, however: how could the NI group be in fellowship with the “hat and hair” crowd that believe and teach that women should wear a head covering in the assembly?  I always perceived it to be an uneasy alliance that brought together two apparently disparate camps to face a common “liberal” “enemy.”  We would drive past church buildings with a church of Christ name on the sign and I never quite understood why they were so different.

In my understanding of the history of this group, there has been little more than constant debate, argument, division, mistrust, and unfortunately hatred—if not that, then something very close to it.  Some issues in the past were issues of core doctrine like pre-millennialism.  Many of the points of division have been over peripheral issues that some will equate with points of Gospel.  That is one of the roots of the matter: a disagreement over what is “Gospel.”  Some will consider the Gospel to be the story of Christ, his coming to earth, his ministry, his sacrifice and resurrection for the purpose of reconciling man with God.  Everyone will accept that much as Gospel.  However, some consider anything written in any New Testament book regardless of historical and cultural context to be Gospel, and everything must be equally weighted: the death, burial and resurrection, the requirements of faith and obedience to grasp the gracious gift of salvation—all of these foundational things are on par with conclusions reached by stitching together disparate scriptural passages with the express goal of recreating the worship of the early church.  Thus, according to some, there can be no latitude in the manner of worship.

This perceived drive to re-establish every nuance of 1st century Christianity without error or flaw is another root of the splintering divisiveness that has split us into so many feuding factions.  This is, of course, an impossible task on many levels.  While we have the collected writings of the Bible (which they did not have 20 centuries ago), we lack a direct line to understanding specific instructions to specific groups regarding specific issues that they faced (which they had in the form of the apostles).  While there are potentially differing views of how certain things may have been implemented in the early church (frequency of meeting and the Lord’s Supper, elders in every city vs. every congregation, the role of women) the accretion of 2,000 years of ecclesiastical tradition has so entangled us that we are paralyzed beyond any hope of extrication from it.

One of the greatest limitations that we face is the unquestioning allegiance to a method of interpretation known as “Command-Example-(Necessary) Inference,” or to those who have made a study of it, CEI or CENI.  The universal commands are collected and revered by all among this tradition: faith, repentance, confession, baptism, and righteous living are all supported by all of the major groups as far as I can tell.  Examples are given the same level as command, since those records could only be there if those actions were taken as a result of a command, which means that examples are actually made “law” based on inferring a command, which is an apparent logical tautology, and takes the argument to the third leg of the hermeneutic stool, inference.

I have written before about these issues, and I will not revisit them here, as my views have essentially not changed since I wrote the earlier essays.  It is sufficient to say that this is a point that is so ingrained in the most ardent defenders that there can be no expectation of change. There have been attempts to repackage the same concepts with different terms, but any conclusions drawn using a synonymous methodology are identical.  Sadly, any attempt to introduce or entertain a new or different method of interpreting scripture, even one that is focused more on scripture itself, is met with cries of indignation and calls to expel the heretic, even though the current method is a purely human construct and eminently subject to fallible human interpretation and prejudice.

The “issues” that I mentioned earlier deal with the underlying disagreements that led to the last great schism that tore the churches of Christ apart some 60 years ago.  One group believed that church funds could be used to do good works, like support orphans’ homes, colleges, and schools.  The much smaller faction, some say now about 10% of the overall body of the churches of Christ, held that we have no authority to do these things.  But there appears to be various points of internal inconsistency in the group.  For example, while church buildings are not directly authorized, they are expedients to getting the job of evangelizing the world done.  However, vans to bring people to the building are not permissible, because of the “slippery slope,” i.e., some may use the van for things other than transportation to worship events.  Some consider the presence of a kitchen in the meeting place to be a sin, citing the excesses of the Corinthian church and their abuses associated with the corruption of the Lord’s Supper, while others consider the meeting place to be an acceptable location to also engage in a common meal and enjoy the company and fellowship of their brothers and sisters, building a spiritual community by sharing social interaction separate from the Lord’s Supper.

There are journal articles from both sides of that debate that went too far in their (over)zealous condemnations.  Calls to “quarantine” the “anti’s” went out, congregations were torn apart, locks were changed to prevent the “other” side access to the church building, preachers were questioned, tested, threatened and fired on both sides.  Attempts were made at talks between the groups, probably more so back in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  But the wounds were still too fresh, and there was no real attempt at “peace,” or even a half-hearted détente.

The generation that fought that war is fading.  Like Reagan and Thatcher, the last of the great western cold warriors on the geopolitical stage, they are passing into the misty aura of history.  Today, many people know nothing of the “issues” that once divided us.  For most of my life, I only heard about the other side.  I almost never interacted with them.  If someone told me where they worshipped, and it was not on the approved list, I considered them to be no different from the rest of the catalog of churches that aren’t “us.”  Being curious by nature, I have read extensively from authors across much of the spectrum of the churches of Christ.  I agree and disagree with views from practically every perspective.  I have also come to respect many of those views.  If I go my entire life and never challenge what I have been taught, if I only accept a teaching without investigation or question, I am no more than a slave to an ideology.  Paul told the Thessalonians to “…test everything; hold fast what is good.” (I Thess 5:21)  I’ve said it before, and I still believe it: any religion that cannot withstand the earnest scrutiny of honest inquiry is not worth pursuing.

When Jesus said to take his yoke and learn from him, it was not the pharisaical yoke of interpreted and interpolated commandments, like the burden of the rabbis of his day.  His burden, and indeed the burden that he offers us, is the burden of humanity, of showing our love for him by channeling his love through us.  We must keep his commands.  But we must never lose sight of that most central command, that very kernel of Christianity, which is love.  I return to this theme so often because it is the essence of who we must be.  But not all members of the churches of Christ see this.  I recall one exchange in which a person with the dangerous combination of being both highly opinionated and loudly vocal actually called into question whether or not we are under the express command to “love your neighbor as yourself” because it was not originally written expressly to us as readers in general, or to a post-Pentecost New Testament recipient or group from whom we may infer the application to ourselves.  I’ll stick with Jesus on this one.  You’ll see all you need to understand Jesus’s view of love by reading the Gospel and First Letter of John.  Matthew 25 seals the concept of love’s centrality for me, since humble, selfless caring for others is the focal criterion that Jesus describes as being the measure of his true followers, and not absolute perfection in the structure and duration of a worship service.

I recently asked a friend who preaches for an institutional congregation what he knows about the NI churches.  From that brief exchange, I concluded that he knows practically nothing.  But I also noticed that there was not the vehemence and condemnation that I have seen in the minority NI wing when referring to the institutional brothers.  We know almost nothing about them, except what we have heard passed down from the veterans of that ideological war.  And what we think we know is likely to be inaccurate, at least as it applies to this generation.  We serve the same God through the same Gospel. We are saved by the same grace through the same obedient faith as we are baptized by the same baptism into the same Christ.  On these points, the NI and mainstream churches of Christ agree.  But we have allowed peripheral things to cloud the true message of the Gospel.  Although we use the same interpretive method or hermeneutic, we have come to radically different conclusions on things like kitchens and money.  Where one sees entertainment, the other sees outreach and spiritual community building.

By allowing things outside the heart of the message to tear us apart, evil wins.  Imagine how strong we would be if we were to link arms in unity rather than take up arms in strife; if we like the Psalmist could shout for joy in the Lord instead of shout down the earnest cry of a seeking soul; if we could take the planks and beams that blind our self-righteous eyes and build bridges, not walls.

Paul reminds the Gentile Ephesians in chapter 2 of that letter to:

“12 …remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

If Christ destroyed the barrier between Jew and Gentile, who are we to build walls to separate us from our brothers and sisters who obey the same Gospel but differ on matters that neither the Gospel nor any scripture ever addresses?

I am not so naïve as to believe that this brief call to reason will have any effect on the most steadfast defenders of their respective orthodoxies.  If experience is any predictor, my assessment of the vocal opposition will be vindicated.  The wise man relates in Proverbs 18:13 that “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”  This necessity to listen and understand was echoed by Francis of Assisi who prayed that God may help him to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”   This is a noble aspiration, but one that must be born of diligence, patience and humility.  If we are unwilling to communicate, we become like the fool in Proverbs 18:2, who “…takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”  John encouraged his readers facing the early waves of the Gnostic heresy to “test the spirits.”  Each person must do this even today and not merely succumb to the volume generated by the most vocal and opinionated in whichever camp we may find ourselves.  God gave us minds to serve not only as receptacles for knowledge, but also as generators of inquiry to propel us to deeper learning and to growth in wisdom.  To refuse to communicate is to remain in ignorance and isolation.  It is a waste of a precious opportunity to grow in love and understanding.  And like a squandered mind, an opportunity is a terrible thing to waste.

Friends….Who Needs Them?

In a recent essay, I explored the command to “love your neighbor,” and made specific application to dealing with people with intellectual disabilities.  We could talk about the need to help those who are less fortunate in any of a multitude of ways.  We could talk about the need to work to supply the needs of our families. All of these are biblical concepts and worthy of full consideration.  However, the relationship among friends is also important in scripture.

Relationships are strange things, but central to the human experience.  There is no way around it: we are social beings.  At the purely animal level, as mammals, we are born without full function and capability to support ourselves.  We depend on a family group to help us survive for the first several years of life, and then we usually move into another social group.

C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”  I have great respect for much of Lewis’s commentary on life and faith.  But I’m not sure I completely agree on this point.  The way of the loner was dismissed as being unfulfilling from the very beginning of the human race.  In the Genesis account of the origin of humankind, God said that it was not good for man to be alone.  For the man’s benefit, a divine charade, one of God’s first “teachable moments,” was initiated to show the man his lonely estate.  Of all the species on the fresh earth, none was counted worthy as man’s equal, as an appropriate companion.  So, according to Genesis, the woman was made to be his equal, and a helper suitable to him.  Perhaps Lewis would disagree, but I firmly believe that a pair-bonded relationship like marriage should be between people who are first friends.  That sort of relationship may indeed have survival value, as well as lending value to survival itself.

Many people have expounded on the significance of the story of the creation of woman.  That she was described as being taken from man’s side placed her as equal, not subservient or controlling.  Of all the interesting aspects of the male-female dichotomy, I am more interested in their complementary natures.  They are biologically distinct, which is obvious to even a casual observer.  The more significant aspect to their complementary nature is in how they think.  Men and women are attuned to different things.  Men tend to focus on big issues, women focus on details.  Men often focus more on physical and mechanical aspects, while women are more in tune with emotions and relationships.  Of course, these are generalities, but they point to the fundamental reason why each sex needs the other, not just for reproduction, but for improved functioning on a daily basis.  Anyone with a working marriage probably knows this intuitively, or from experience.

So, man’s first friend was his life companion, and the two became the nucleus of a family unit.  Every person today is born into some sort of family unit, and our first experience as humans, our first allegiance is to close relatives.  But as we grow, the emphasis shifts more toward friends, with the likely event of an eventual pair bond forming at some point, and the nucleation of another family unit.  This is one of the great cycles of life.

Much more could be said about the relationship of men and women, the trials and triumphs associated with marriage, the ultimate formal expression of that relationship.  But as one who came late to that particular game, I am less qualified to make assessments of marriage than many others. However, having been a human for all of my life, I feel pretty good about making observations on that particular topic.  And so I shall.

There is value in having a focus beyond the self.  This is very apparent in many of the teachings in the wisdom literature.  In Ecclesiastes 4.7,8, Koheleth makes an observation relating to the vanity of working for riches with no one to receive them when we are gone.

7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

Apparently, working to amass a fortune for no good reason leads to deprivation of pleasure.  But doesn’t wealth bring pleasure?  Not necessarily.  According to a recent study released by the Spectrem Group, about 20 percent of affluent and wealthy investors agree that “money can buy happiness.” But about half disagreed.  The remaining 30-odd percent neither agreed nor disagreed.  Young investors were more likely to agree with the statement, while the older one tended to disagree.  Perhaps they had seen a life filled with disappointments, as the hope of happiness was hung on wealth as a support, but that happiness never really materialized.

A 2009 study by a group of researchers at the University of Rochester followed 147 recent graduates for two years, and followed their happiness levels as they pursued specific goals.  Achieving intrinsic goals like meaningful relationships, health, and personal growth provided a greater sense of well-being and happiness than achieving extrinsic goals.  Pursuing extrinsic goals like wealth and fame lead to feelings of being trapped and having no control over one’s life.  The treadmill existence is farther from happiness than most would really like to experience.

According to some recent studies, being above the poverty line is important.  Above that, money makes only a small contribution to happiness.  At a point somewhere around the average income for a population, money makes virtually no difference in determining levels of personal happiness or contentment.  Researchers from the University of Southern California confirmed this observation in a study that followed the happiness levels of urban populations in China from 1990 to 2010, a period of unprecedented economic growth for that nation.  They found “no evidence of a marked increase in life satisfaction.”

Immediately after Koheleth visited the sad plight of the lonely rich man, he launched into a discussion of the benefits of good relationships.

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

In verse 9, those who labor together get more accomplished, and thus can share in a greater reward.  In verse 10, the benefit of physical assistance supplies a concrete example that can be broadened to the benefits of having a shoulder to lean on when we need assistance emotionally.  In verse 11, we can depend on a friend for our very survival, or maybe to keep warm in a world that may seem cold to us in more ways than temperature.  And in verse 12, we can depend on a friend for defense against whatever the world may throw at us.  There is strength in unity, and the image of the twisted rope or the bundled twigs is a very compelling comparison.

The wisdom literature has other references to the benefits of true friends, and cautions against false ones, such as those who are drawn to riches, but run away when times may be hard.  A true friend is more like what the wise man describes in Proverbs 17.17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”  In Proverbs 18.24, The wise man says, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”  Here, many make the application of the friend being Christ, or God.  I think a literal explanation is more likely.  A person who has many friends may not have real friends with the commitment to go the distance when you need them most.  If you have such a friend, you know it, and you will likely only have that friend if you are of that brand, yourself.

Real friends will tell us when we need correction or we are making fools of ourselves, according to the wise man, who observed, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27.6)  Enemies may ply you with flattery until they locate a weakness, then they attack.  So the choice is offered: suffer for a moment from the correction of a friend, or suffer much more from one whose actions are disingenuous.

Jesus knew the value of friends.  Many people may see Jesus as the man with followers, but they may not equate those closest followers as friends.  In John 11, his friendship with Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha was strained when he arrived too late to save Lazarus from his untimely death.  Jesus is obviously moved by their grief, but reassured them that he would live again.  He made good on his promise.  He was a true friend.

Later, in John 15.12ff, he explains the lengths to which he would go to demonstrate his love for his disciples, his friends:

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Friendship is truly one of the great experiences of life.  While everyone needs a little solitude on occasion, we need interaction with people we know, trust and love.  Again, the wise man aptly observed in Proverbs 27.17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”  We need challenge, we need solace, we need to know we aren’t alone in this big wide world.

Just being in the vicinity of people likely won’t suffice, either–it might even make you feel more alone.  But the company of good friends is of inestimable value.  Even if we aren’t rich in material goods, friends bring us riches of the heart.  So on one hand, investing in friendship is a sure thing.  But like any investment, it involves risk, and the cost of having a friend is being one.  It means practicing a sincere brotherly love (Romans 12.9,10), as expressed in things like outdoing one another in showing honor, and by not only “rejoicing with those who rejoice,” but also “weeping with those who weep.” (Romans 12.15)  In a time when Wall Street is on a roller coaster ride, this is one market that’s not likely to crash.  And the return on the right investment is unlimited.